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Perhaps you have had one or two homosexual experiences. Perhaps you've merely thought about it. Neither scenario necessarily means that you have told yourself you are gay.
Such thoughts and actions don't actually mean a person is gay. In some cases a heterosexual person, particularly an adolescent, may simply be experimenting -- mentally or physically.
"People may be experimenting and seeing where their sexuality lies," notes Dr. Richard Isay, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical College and the author of Being Homosexual. "However, if someone has persistent homosexual experiences -- and not necessarily encounters but day dreams and night dreams -- and has had them for a long time, then that person is gay."
Some people are truly bisexual, equally attracted to both sexes. "I was always really turned on by men," says Sheila, a thirty-six-year-old rural Tennessee health-care worker.
Then in my early twenties I realized I was also really turned on by women. At first I thought I must be a lesbian, but my realization that I liked women did not stop or cover up my strong sexual attraction for men. I've accepted that I'm really bisexual, and I realize there aren't many people like me.
The vast majority of people who have recurring homosexual thoughts or experiences, however, are truly homosexual, although they often don't want to face the fact. Society has placed such a terrible stigma on homosexuality that even thinking about sex with someone of the same gender can be frightening. After having had several homosexual experiences, many people still deny that they are gay. They tell themselves that they are really heterosexual, they continue to live as heterosexuals, and they maintain that their homosexual incidents or thoughts don't and can't mean anything. Perhaps they tell themselves that they are bisexual as a way of holding on to some form of heterosexuality, some form of what they have been told is "normal" and "right." This is common, and has made many homosexuals -- once they have fully come out -- unfairly suspicious of the existence of true bisexuals.
Rudy, a twenty-four-year-old northern California law student, remembers how he couldn't face the truth when at age eighteen he began to realize his homosexuality.
I had what I guess you could call a crush on a guy at school -- I mean I used to dream about kissing him -- and every time I saw him in class my heart would start pounding and I'd turn red. I would then get this queasy feeling in my stomach, like I was sick, because this feeling of liking the guy made me ill, because I thought homosexuality was disgusting.
I convinced myself that I was bisexual, and that I could control the gay side and not act on it. But I soon realized that I didn't like girls in a sexual way at all. Two years later I began dating a girl who really was bisexual -- I mean, she liked girls and guys and had had relationships with both. And, well, she and I had very little sex. After a lot of long talks she eventually said to me, "You're not bisexual. You're gay."
I went home that night, and for the first time wrote in my journal, "I'm gay." Then I crossed it out. I just couldn't face it.
DECADES SPENT WITHOUT IDENTIFYING ONESELF AS GAY
For some people, this first step of identifying oneself as gay or lesbian (or even bisexual) can take many years to complete. Doris, a fifty-four-year-old Buffalo, New York, business owner, married a man and had four children before eventually coming out as a lesbian and divorcing her husband -- after thirty years of marriage. "Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be near women, to be physically close to them in a way that I really never wanted to be with men -- even though I forced myself to be with men in that way," she says.
I admitted those feelings to myself for a very long time. But still, in those days that didn't matter. If you wanted to do well, you got married. Besides, I wasn't able to deal with the feelings anyway. They were too frightening, too eerie and weird, you know?
Then, after years of just barely acknowledging to myself that I had a longing to be intimate with a woman, I finally did experience it with a very close friend who was also married. But to actually identify myself as a lesbian? Oh God. No, it was years and years before I could actually do that.
"From the moment one begins to suspect that one might be 'different' from others the seed of doubt is sown, sending out corrosive roots to obstruct and inhibit the process by which self-esteem naturally grows," declares author and journalist Mark Thompson, who has written much about the coming-out process and the dynamics of gay life. Thompson stresses the notion of "coming out inside," coming out to oneself. "There's a valuable part of ourselves that was stolen at an early part of our lives," he says, "and we need to get it back. The doubt is sown deep inside of us because society still carries the message that being gay is bad. We internalize all of that."
Because of the social stigma attached to them, the mere words "gay" and "lesbian" -- not to mention "homosexual," "fag," "dyke," and "queer" -- are terms that most people don't want associated with themselves. It's amazing how powerful these words can be. Some people engaging in sex with people of the same sex, many even in their first same-sex relationship, still cannot bring themselves to say that they are lesbian or gay. For some, the reluctance is subtle: They get around such identification by saying that they shun "labels" of any kind and don't like "categorizing" themselves. For others, the unwillingness to identify themselves as lesbian or gay is more conscious, tinged with internalized homophobia.
"I liked being with guys and having sex with guys, but I kept telling myself that I wasn't 'gay,' or a 'fag,' or any of that," recalls Ramon, a twenty-six-year-old Miami sales clerk.
My family is Cuban, and in our culture being macho is very important. So I'd tell myself that I was every bit a man, and that the men I was sleeping with and hanging out with were real men -- we just had sex with each other, that's all. "Gay" was something else.
To me, it was all the stereotypes -- effeminate men, drag queens, you know. I wouldn't have sex with someone who identified themselves as "gay." I believed that if I didn't say I was that -- even to myself -- then I wasn't.
BEGINNING A JOURNEY
Ramon's experience resonates for many gay men and lesbians who refuse to accept their homosexuality. But many people who think they accept their newfound homosexuality have never really identified themselves as gay or lesbian. Self-identifying is a way of starting the coming-out process: You can't tell other people that you're lesbian or gay until you've told yourself. It's also important to identify yourself as gay as a way of rejecting the hatred directed at you and the lies told about you. Identifying yourself starts you on a long journey.
"I first identified myself as gay when I was about twelve or thirteen years old," says Lincoln, a nineteen-year-old West Virginia college student.
It was a scary situation but one that sticks out permanently in my mind. I was in my bathroom, brushing my teeth, looking at myself in the mirror. All of these feelings I had been having but not really understanding were flooding into my mind while I looked at myself -- all of these thoughts about men and a kind of realizing I was a homosexual. I began to cry, and then I prayed to God to change me because I thought it was evil or wrong. But then, from that point on, I underwent a tremendous inner healing. From the "mirror incident" I learned to accept for myself that I would not be changed I was gay.
Lincoln's "mirror incident" is something we can all learn from. By looking himself in the mirror and facing the truth about himself, no matter how painful, Lincoln was able eventually to find inner peace and come to terms with his homosexuality.
The following exercise is the first of many in this book. These exercises are based on the actual experiences of many lesbians and gay men who, like Lincoln, stumbled upon some rituals that helped them. Depending on where you are in your coming-out journey, you will either want to read the exercises and think about them or actually do them. But this overall process is about coming out: Actions will help you more than words, and words will help you more than thoughts.
EXERCISE 1: "MIRROR, MIRROR"
Go to your bathroom mirror. Pick a time when you know there is no one around and when you know for sure that no one will walk in on you or hear you. Run the water in the sink if you want to be really sure no one will hear you.
Look at yourself in the mirror and study your face. Take a few minutes to get to know yourself and your face in the mirror. Feel good about this person who is taking charge of himself or herself.
When you are ready, say softly and sweetly "I am gay" or "I am a lesbian."
Say it slowly, over and over again, no matter how painful it is, no matter if it makes you cry. As the gay film historian and activist Vito Russo once said, "The truth will set you free, but first it will be a pain in the neck." Hear the truth, and accept the pain, which will eventually subside. For now, feel it and don't hold in your grief.
Mourn the fact that you are not the person you thought you were, the person everyone else wanted you to be. Think about that person and think about all the things about that person that did not represent the real you.
Say goodbye to the old you forever, someone who helped you out through thick and thin. This may be a sad experience, but it is time for that person to go. Eventually, you will celebrate the real you, the person you are now allowing to come out.
"Basically, coming out is a death and rebirth experience," says author Mark Thompson. "To come out, something has to die -- whatever it was you thought you were. That's a painful experience. In a sense, you're killing a former constructed identity and creating a new one."
Do Exercise 1 as often and as long as you feel necessary, then go on to Exercise 2.
EXERCISE 2: "I AM WHAT I AM"
After you have done Exercise 1 a few times, go to a quiet, private place where no one will walk in on you -- the woods or a park, if you have to -- and bring a pen and paper. For this first time that you are doing Exercise 2, divide the paper lengthwise into three columns. In the left-hand column, beginning at the top, you will write "I am gay" or "I am a lesbian."
I am gay
I am gay
I am gay
I am gay
Then, next to that phrase, in the middle of the column, write down a negative word that describes homosexuals -- one of the many ugly words that you have heard over the years from your family, your friends, or even your teachers. Go down the page, writing down another ugly epithet next to "I am gay" or "I am a lesbian."
I am a lesbian dyke
I am a lesbian lezzie
I am a lesbian butch
I am a lesbian diesel
Read all of the words you have in the middle column over and over again. Face the words that are used against you, desensitize yourself to them, and move on. After you have read the words several times, fold the paper and put it somewhere inside this book. (You will use this piece of paper again, in Step 2.)
The next time you do Exercise 2, divide the paper into two, not three, columns. Simply write down the words "I am gay" or "I am lesbian" in the left-hand column and the epithets on the right. As you write the words, accept them as a description of the new you. As in Exercise 1, say goodbye to the old you and feel the accompanying pain and grief.
Each time you finish this exercise, rip up the paper and throw it away. But remember to keep the three-columned paper you have folded and put in this book.
Do Exercises I and 2 until there is little or no pain associated with the epithets or with saying goodbye to the old you. You will know when you are ready to move on.
You may not feel good about yourself yet, but that will happen in time, after several more steps in the Outing Yourself process. The goal of this first step is for you to face the truth, to verbalize it and write it down. You'll know it's time to move on when the grief you've experienced is replaced by a desire to move and grow and change, an urge fueled by excitement and/or trepidation.
1995 by Michelangelo Signorile
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Coming out (Sexual orientation) United States, Gay men United States Family relationships, Lesbians United States Family relationships, Gay men United States Social conditions, Lesbians United States Social conditions